What is a single use monocle?
What is a single use monocle?
OH my gosh! It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever worked on. It started as a joke, obviously, that you have a condom wrapper but you open it up and it’s a monocle for your emergency monocle needs. I get an update from our store that we’ve sold a few today. Hivemill.com or SingleUseMonocles.com.
We actually sell a decent amount to bachelor or bachelorette parties as the dorkiest gifts you can get! The lens is just a piece of acrylic plastic, but it’s nicer than a $2 costume monocle. We say “single use” but it’s actually re-usable. We did it as a joke, and the sweetest plum is that my wife thought it was a dumb idea but then we made a nice profit. That was a good day for me.
You learn so much throughout the book: “it’s about 10 cents or less per letter” to write custom strings of DNA. Of course, “the human genome has about three billion letters.” On page 221, we learn that we don’t have to stick with 20 kinds of amino acids anymore - with new DNA, we can make 172. Was there anything that you learned along the way that blew your mind?
Oh, almost everything! I’m a nerdy person. My wife is a research scientist, and she studies brain-manipulating parasites (she would say she studies “parasites that manipulate host behavior), which we don’t get into in the book - very tangentially, some of her knowledge was useful in our biology chapter, and by being who we are we have a great connection network to help us find out about obscure things.
But none of this stuff is stuff we have expertise in. So part of why this was so much work was so we could become as expert as possible, or talk to someone who is, so we don’t say anything too wrong.
For me, the most mind-blowing thing as far as creep factor was the brain-interface stuff. We cannot do this yet, but there’s no reason to suppose you couldn’t make a machine that enhances memory, possibly intelligence (that’s a tougher question I think), but the stuff like detecting lapse in focus is entirely possible. If you’re at your job, and you’re supposed to be focusing on work but you’re on Facebook or you’re thinking about your mother in law coming by - you’re lapsing - your boss could detect that using this technology and say “You’re not utterly focused.”
Which sounds like a pure unbridled nightmare. There’s a not-entirely-negative version of that, which would be for a jet pilot or a surgeon, where you might recognize the the person buying your services has a right to insist you’re focused. BUT - here’s the mind-blowing creepy part - in a world where this is a thing, there’s an incentive to be that employee who’s totally cool with their boss monitoring their brain. So imagine you’re a boss, you don’t even have to imagine this is an evil boss, but someone who’s just trying to do their best job or make money, and that boss is presented with 2 employees - employee A who refuses to have their focus monitored by an external apparatus, and employee B accepts. And now you have an arms race, especially as the technology develops. You could argue that this is already happening. Something like 20% of elite academic researches are already admitting to using brain-enhancing drugs so they could work 16 hours a day or more. It’s already an arms race - who gets tenure, the person who works 16 hours a day or not? So you’re talking about a world where you can’t opt out without serious consequences. And that, to me, is creepy.
We didn’t get to find out what Neural Dust was, though. Any chance of that being in the next book?
So a guy named Kennedy invented these. The idea is you have a tiny piece of glass, you connect wires to it, and next to the wires are nutrients for neurons, and you implant this in someone’s head. And why would you do this, you ask? So instead of sticking a probe into someone’s brain, the neurons grow over and into it. So in theory it’s a better way to get data on a small number of neurons.
Obviously it’s quite invasive - there’s a story in the book about the guy who invented it getting it implanted in his own head, because he couldn’t get funding or research patients. The general case with a lot of this brain stuff is that the brain is not a computer - a computer doesn’t have a physical immune system that doesn’t like having stuff stuck in it, which worsens the signal and also causes brains to inflame.
But it’s a wonderful story. This guy can’t get subjects, or funding, so he goes to Belize, and they put in these neurotropic implants he designed. How he found a surgeon to convince is incredible to me, and I guess he got interesting data, and like most neural implants, the data faded over time. He did lose his ability to read for a little while, but the weirdest part of his story was he needed it removed and he was able to get insurance to cover it?!?! So insurance won’t cover birth control, but it will cover the cost of having an illegal brain implant removed.
How much do you love surprising people with “phosphenes” jokes?
If you can believe that, the more time I have, the nerdier I get! My brother and I Marty were teenagers, and we bumped into this word, “phosphenes” - when you pressure your eyes and you trigger your optic nerve. Be careful with the pressure! So my brother and I used to do this thing where you’d run up behind someone, softly but insistently press on their eyeballs, and yell “PHOSPHENES!” I did that to my wife for a while, but it didn’t go over as well. I didn’t trust she would have a proportionate level of response.
Do you or Kelly read a lot of science fiction books, or see a lot of science fiction movies? Why or why not?
Not as much as I’d think people would guess. I’ll tel you why: speaking for Kelly, we do read some pop science, she’s just not as into the sci-fi scene, as a thing. She enjoys Black Mirror, that sort of thing. I do like some classic science fiction, but I’m an English major. I like reading old poetry, and literary things. So if I can get some good literary science fiction, old Frederik Pohl or Stanislav Lem or the Strugatsky Brothers. Fundamentally at my deepest level I’m a profound snob, so I’m not into high fantasy type stuff. I’m not a sci-fi geek. I do enjoy it, I liked Star Wars as a kid, but I’m not an encyclopedia of science fiction.
Page 332 was another exclaiming “WTF” moment out loud for me with this idea of mirror versions of organisms. Are you working with the Marvel Universe team yet? Also, caraway or spearmint?
I should say George Church (who’s absolutely smarter than me) thinks it’s plausible and good. We don’t even get much into detail, but a lot of molecules in your body exhibit chirality - like a corkscrew, one turns one way, another turns another way. A lot of molecules in your body have this chirality. So in principle, you could create organisms that operate on other chirality. So there’s actually an idea, maybe back in the 1980s, there was the idea of a sweeter that your body couldn’t use because it operated on the opposite chirality.
A more potentially interesting idea is presumably a lot of diseases wouldn’t be able to affect you if you were the “mirror” version. But for the amount of work it would take to make a mirror human, we might be able to cure these diseases! And Dr. Church pointed out if you have a mirror human and a non-mirror human, presumably they wouldn’t be able to reproduce. So you’d get this weird thing where you’ve created a divergent species that looks like you. And if they’re better than us with not getting diseases, they might not like us! So maybe we exist in a world where the mirror people take over.
But plausibly, suppose you wanted to do research with smallpox - you don’t want to make any mistakes as no one’s immune to it anymore. But if you were able to make mirror smallpox in a lab, you could do these tests and it would immediately die out in the wild. But mostly it was something we read about that George Church (who embodies mad scientist in every wonderful sense of the word) wrote about extensively in his book REGENESIS.
Oh wow! Gosh. This book has a lot of stuff that would meet this category. But one thing we’ve been telling people that’s just amazing - my wife did the research on this, we talked about crazy late 1950’s projects, but there was one called Argus. To keep it to a factoid, we detonated a bunch of nuclear bombs in space, and accidentally knocked out the first British satellite! It feels like a British comedy to me, they finally got their satellite up, and we shot it out of space. So when I think of a rarely told fact, I think of that.
What’s coming up next for you and Kelly?
We’re working on something together, but it’s going to take a few years. I do have a book coming out with a co-author, it’s a graphic novel, nonfiction, arguing that the US should have an open-border immigration policy. So that’s the next thing for me. Kelly is, I mentioned we’re moving to a farm, with a big metal structure that Kelly is converting to an ecology lab. So while we’re researching our next project, she’s researching parasitic wasps, which she finds fascinating and not gross.
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